The local cocks were already fiercely debating the salmon dawn by the time the first rays of sunlight struck the steaming manure heap in the farmyard. From the stables, a low, satisfying sound of oats being munched was punctuated by friendly equine small talk, bbbrrrs and whinnies. Somewhere out in the countryside, the clip-clop of distant hooves confirmed that rush-hour in the horse world was well under way.
I was at an equestrian centre in central France, a creeper-clad cluster of farm buildings folded in fields. A butcher's dozen of stallions and mares were stabled around me. Beyond the white picket fences, a medieval hamlet with a Romanesque church completed the picture-perfect scene.
We had worked out that it was cheaper to go to France for half-term than stew in London throwing money at our three children in order to keep them amused. So we alighted on the département of Allier, an obscure patchwork-quilt of fields, forests and lakes scattered with ancient farmhouses, idyllic villages and 12th-century churches, in the centre of France. No significant numbers of foreign visitors have passed through Allier since an English expeditionary force took a wrong turning outside Calais during the Hundred Years War.
Despite impeccable bucolic credentials, Allier has had its regal moments. The nearby medieval town of Souvigny is the ancestral seat of the Bourbons, one of the mightiest royal dynasties in Europe. The Bourbons ruled France from 1589 until Louis XVI lost his head in 1793. They still rule Spain: King Juan Carlos I is a Bourbon. In the 14th century, the Bourbon duke Louis II designated Souvigny as a princely necropolis, and several of his descendants are magnificently entombed in the Cluniac priory.
Our destination was Le Frelut, an equine rehabilitation centre for distressed jumpers, racers, dressage horses, trotters and ponies that have suffered physical and mental abuse. The majority of owners who check their horses in here have despaired of veterinary science and quack therapies, and hear about Le Frelut via the international horse grapevine. Some horses, barely able to stand up, have gone mad from relentless pain inflicted by callous training methods, compounded by anti-inflammatory drugs. They come here to be nursed back to sanity and soundness by a mystically gifted "horse whisperer", name of Willie Sidorak, 60.
Like many gifted horse people, Sidorak is tall (horses respect tall people) and has small ears (horses respect people with pinned-back ears). His American father was killed at the end of the Second World War, leaving his Romanian mother to bring him up alone in Romania and southern Germany. This deracination is reflected in his mangling of European languages: he speaks in a cheery but often incomprehensible mélange of Dutch, French and German, laced with English, purged of class and region.
Horses are good for children - they instil confidence, and teach them to be constructively demanding, practical and in control. And our children love horses to a degree that compensates for the lack of metropolitan diversions here. So, Le Frelut solves the classic family-holiday crisis: a rural idyll that also engages the children. With its gardens, pool, outhouses for guests, stable blocks, paddocks and a manège (indoor riding arena), you'd happily send your only daughter to learn horsemanship at Le Frelut. Although pared-to-the-bone, our accommodation was palatial compared with that of the horses, who lived like monks, eating hay and grass, sleeping on straw, drinking nothing but water, and spending much of the day looking over their stable doors, hoping for a pat or an apple. We felt strangely reassured by this equine gallery of statuesque heads keeping vigil.
Willie Sidorak's sidekicks at Le Frelut are Gertrude, a patient and sweetly instructive Dutch horse-devotee, and Marija, Willie's saintly partner. While horses always come first at Le Frelut, Gertrude and Marija make the going easy for guests, too. Gertrude told us how, in the wild, a lone stallion would command a harem-cum-nursery of brood mares and foals, until some other horse, usually one of its sons, decided to bite back and kick out. Compound these instincts with centuries of breeding specifically for aggression, and you have the potential for volatile relationships. "Put two rival stallions in a field together, and there would be a trial of strength and perhaps a fight to the death," said Gertrude.
Getting the placements right when allocating a stall to each horse requires the diplomatic sensitivity of UN peace talks, and a grasp of horse psychology. Like us, horses are minutely attuned to gestures of dominance and submission. They bluff, exaggerate, ignore, strike alliances, betray loyalties, reward courage and seek affection. They respond to flattery, and mock their superiors. They punish and humiliate those whom they can, and cultivate bonds among those whom they cannot. They communicate with a simple repertoire of gestures: "pawing" the ground, pinning back the ears, clicking the teeth, twitching a leg, whipping a tail, and neighing - an apocalyptic sound like the fury of hell. These are early- warning signs of more threatening behaviour: kicking, biting and charging. Horses rarely resort to actual violence, preferring to settle things as we do, with a swift exchange of threats sincere enough to test the mettle, but * * symbolic enough to keep peace and maintain the social contract.
On our first morning, with no nagging, the children rose early, ate breakfast and were already out watching the horses being exercised by the time I got up. As I strolled about, Willie was returning from a 20km ride with a racehorse hitched to a six-seater carriage. No sooner was the horse unhitched, unharnessed, showered and dried, than another beast was hitched up.
"Hello! Guten morgan!" Willie spotted me. "You come travailler mit die horse!"
Off we trotted, accompanied by Katie, Gertrude's indefatigable Jack Russell, whose tiny legs whizzed with invisible velocity. The Allier countryside is called le Bocage: farmland criss-crossed by hedges and trees. You can go tens of kilometres in any direction, and not encounter any manifestation of the 20th century, never mind the 21st. No roads, no machinery, no railways, no overhead flight paths, no electricity pylons, just fields, forests and lakes. This makes for excellent riding terrain: rich pasture, gentle hills, footing that is kind to tender, twistable ankles, and a campagne that is open enough to give a horse a sense of freedom, but sufficiently enclosed as to give him no illusions about bolting. With this horse pounding away, I felt like I had galloped on to the set of a costume drama.
Willie controlled the horse with a limited vocabulary of, "Allez... hop... C'est bon... Doucement, doucement", answered by the twitching ears. "Does this horse understand French?" "Ha! Mit die horsen, il y a une langue universelle."
As the routine of carriage riding was adhered to religiously every morning to strengthen the horses and rebuild their self-confidence, our children soon picked up on the characters and quirks of each horse. There was Pepo, a playful, mischievous stallion named after a Dutch clown. Pepo (the horse) had once managed to escape his stall by unbolting the door with his teeth. Pepo's neighbour was Arjon, grandson of Nimmerdor, a renowned Dutch horse. Arjon was being trained as a jumper. When not gazing regally into the distance, he relished the attention of the children, whose shoulders he would affectionately nuzzle. Smaragd and King, a pair of black Friesians, looked like Seventies rock legends, with long, straggling manes hanging over their faces. When Willie bought King from the butcher, he was a nervous wreck - terrified, unconfident, aggressive - but now he is placid enough to be ridden by my six-year-old daughter. Panache, a racehorse who had injured a leg, was also saved from the butcher. Some horses are reunited with their owners once fit; others stay as pets.
The children made best friends with a group of Shetland ponies - Kelly, Little Boy, Dana and Sjamier - who were locked in a pony power-struggle. Kelly ate like a horse, was moody and bucked the children off at the slightest excuse. Little Boy hid shyly behind a curtain of hair, and had sore feet. Dana, pregnant, had a soft personality and was easily pushed around by the others. Sjamier, who barely came up to my knees, had a Napoleonic narcissistic personality disorder. He squealed like a pig when denied attention, and picked fights.
From these ponies, the children learnt basic horsemanship: saddling, unsaddling, washing, drying and feeding. Although none of my children would dream of tidying their own bedrooms, they happily got up at dawn to help muck out the stables, harness the ponies and head off for walks in the Bocage, looking like a tableau from a medieval illuminated manuscript.
"Little Boy was totally crazy when he came here," Willie told me. "Now, he is getting more confidence. It is because the children want nothing of Little Boy, only love."
During our stay, the brocante (bric-a-brac market) arrived at the nearby town of Bourbon-l'Archambault - former seat of the Duc d'Orléans, a cadet branch of the Bourbons. On offer was the usual weird mix of attic clearances, but like all brocantes, this was primarily a social fixture.
I spotted an old friend, an English farmer who has lived here for years. Very tall, bearded and earringed, Peter had a vaguely piratical appearance that stood out among the locals. I told him I wouldn't mind buying a house around here. "Oh, yeah," he laughed, "along with hundreds of other Brits. This is start-all-over-again country. English people, up to their necks in debt, come here thinking the living is cheaper, which, up to a point, it is. A flat in Portsmouth would buy you a nice spread here. But they soon find there's no work. They can't get to grips with the language, and they fall behind with the paperwork. They end up returning to Britain worse off than they arrived."
Back at Le Frelut, we found Pepo undergoing a dressage master class with Willie. As Pepo trotted around the perimeter of the manège, his white spats highlighting his elegant light-footed, high-stepping gait, he flashed teeth at us at every passing. "Ooola. Ooola. Ooola," soothed Willie, which was probably horse for, "Ignore that idiot with the notepad, and keep trotting".
At a former base in Holland, Willie treated 2,000 horses each year, from all over the world. Now, he prefers to concentrate on just 10 a year. Money is, of course, at the root of much horse evil. Owners often go into denial, fearing that any injury will hit the value of a horse. So they mask aches and pains with drugs that compound the suffering, and triggers a downward spiral finishing at the knacker's yard. Willie's mission at Le Frelut is to help owners, vets, farriers, acupuncturists, dentists and trainers to change their approach. "You can put a horse in a golden box, but if you do not understand him, it is a prison," he said. He eventually wants to enshrine his knowledge in a European "horse centre" to educate people in ethical horse care. Asked how he diagnoses and treats horses, he gave me a baffling earful of Jabberwocky speak.
"Oh, don't worry," said Gertrude. "Very few people understand Willie. But horses, dogs and cats have no problem. He goes by gut instinct and a feeling for certain animals. He has the contact with the eye, and he has a feeling for their bodies. The main problem is pain. You cannot see pain. The reactions of the horses tell Willie a lot about whether they feel pain."
One sideline at Le Frelut is horse-breeding. In the spirit of a Jane Austen novel whose protagonists have four legs, owners of mares are always casting for stallions that they believe can bring out the best in the mare's progeny, whether for jumping, trotting, dressage, racing or just recreation. At Le Frelut, where some of the stallions have famous parents, they breed by what is delicately termed "natural cover". This is not a question of putting a stallion and a mare into a barn, turning up the Barry White and then listening out for snoring, because that would risk injury and could take hours. For safety and speed, breeding is done by hand in a choreographed operation in the manège. We were invited to watch Arjon cover an unnamed mare. With a knowing prance, Arjon arrived, led by the local blacksmith - a young Dutch chap in vest and apron.
Arjon didn't seem bothered by the packed gallery, including five agog children. After a few minutes' wait, Gertrude led in the mare, while Marija, Willie's partner, brought along her foal for reassurance and distraction. As soon as the mare entered, Arjon perked up visibly. Without any foreplay, never mind dinner, the mare reversed towards Arjon, and began to "show"; horse breeders call this "winking", an accurate description of what you see. Arjon reared up and clamped his front legs on the mare's shoulders. He ended up a metre off target. The blacksmith yanked him down, and Arjon stood momentarily flat-footed. He soon collected himself and reared again. This time, he found the mark. The blacksmith made the introduction. Twenty seconds later, Arjon returned to earth.
With a collective sense of relief, everyone stood back. Arjon softly nuzzled the mare, moving from her neck up towards her face, bringing his lips and hers together in an unmistakable kiss - a touching moment of intimacy. My children emerged from their free biology lesson in a state of mild shock.
The following morning, we went on another carriage ride, this time with Luciano, a notable trotter. Willie showed us a video of Luciano competing in his last race. Trotting looks like comic relief: the horse keeps two hooves in contact with the ground at all times, while pulling a sulky (a two-wheeled vehicle for one person). It's a summer-holiday donkey derby along the beach, but played out at cinder tracks before crowds of thousands. Luciano led the field until, two furlongs out, he inexplicably cracked up and let four horses pass. A muscular malady was diagnosed, and Luciano was pronounced dog food - until Willie spotted something in him, and swooped. Now, Luciano is exercised for 30 minutes each day, and is making a steady recovery.
Hooked up to Luciano, we trotted off. "Oh no. Oh no. Doucement, doucement," called Willie, as Luciano tried to cut loose. "He's warming up his muscles. His mind is stressed. The mind is crazy." Willie tapped his temple. We plunged into the Bocage and flew past a blur of farmhouses, forests and fields of bewildered cows. We forded streams, slithered through muddy waterlogged swamps, and cantered up and down hills. Luciano was unstoppable.
We arrived home, bespattered after the ride of our lives. Luciano was panting like a steam engine, dripping sweat, with veins throbbing. He was unhitched, and hosed down. "Beaucoup pain," said Willie, playing a jet of water on Luciano's left haunch. "Now, is OK. Super character, Luciano. You work him; he love you. Now, he is calm; but before..." Willie shook his head, "...crazy!"
Luciano is expected to resume his trotting career in France in 2007. "When he stays in good health," said Willie, "he can win €1m."
I asked Willie about the rewards of horse salvage. "Not every horse is giving back the money," he said. "It comes back in other ways. A horse is more grateful than a human being. For me, the reward is to see someone riding a horse and trying to do it in a good way. This gives me, and the horse, power and energy."
Le Frelut is near the village of Autry-Issards, which is not far from Moulins. By train, take the Eurostar (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com) to Paris Gare du Nord, then to Moulins from Gare de Lyon. Rail Europe (08708 371 371; www.raileurope.co.uk) can organise your entire journey.
By car, cross the Channel via Eurotunnel (07805 35 35 35; www.eurotunnel.com). Once in Calais, head towards Dunkirk on the A16, then join the A26-E15 towards St-Omer. Branch right on to the A1 towards Paris, and head south on the A6. Join the A77/N7 all the way to Moulins.
Ferme Le Frelut, 03210 Autry-Issards, France (00 33 470 436 218; www.lefrelut.com). Doubles from €40 (£28). A six-person gîte costs €545 (£389) per week from April to September.
Maison de la France ( www.franceguide.com)
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